Wednesday, January 6, 2010

40. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

I went to the library one day with a list of books to get, having checked online to see if they were available in the library. Maybe I was distracted when I was checking, but one had been checked out when I got there and another was at the other library location in my town. Sheesh! One of the books I was looking for was by Jonathan Safran Foer. Colin suggested that I get Everything is Illuminated because he loves the movie, and would watch it with me when I finished the book. So I shook off the disappointment of my less-than-stellar fact-checking and took his suggestion.

Everything is Illuminated is comprised of two stories. The first is about a young American, named Jonathan Safran Foer, and his journey to the Ukraine to find the woman, Augustine, who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He is accompanied by Alex, a young Ukrainian translator; Alex's grandfather, also named Alex, their driver; and Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., Alex's grandfather's seeing eye dog (for Alex's grandfather, depressed since the death of his wife, insists he is blind). The second is the history of Jonathan's grandfather's shtetl in the Ukraine and his ancestors who lived there.

I loved this book. I had so much fun reading it, which is a little surprising considering that some parts are quite dark. I thought the format was very clever. The book is written after the majority of the action takes place -- Jonathan is writing a book about the experience, and Alex sends him chapters from his point of view as well as letters in response to Jonathan's feedback (which we are not privy to). The history of the shtetl is written by Jonathan, and chapters of it are interspersed with Alex's writing. Alex's English is quite broken, and I thought it was insanely annoying for the first two pages -- but once I got into the rhythm of it, I really enjoyed it. The subtle humor in the mistakes and literal translations had me laughing out loud. I thought the history of Jonathan's ancestors was going to be really boring, but it was entertaining for the most part and only dry occasionally. There was some emphasis on the idea that the choices and decisions people make affect the lives of their descendants for years to come, which reminded me of Ursula, Under. While the book was funny and entertaining, there were serious undertones throughout and it left me thinking about the characters and their choices.

I enjoyed Everything is Illuminated the movie, too. I thought it was probably the best adaptation that could be made. I knew the film makers would have to cut the back story on Jonathan's ancestors, and they did (it would have been too complicated to cut back and forth to, in my opinion). I'm trying to avoid spoilers for anyone who hasn't read the book, but I will say that I didn't really think they needed to change the grandfather's story but I did like the closure on Augustine in the movie. All of that being said, having read the book before seeing the movie made the movie seem incomplete. As is often the case, the book being adapted was so rich with details and humor and well-developed characters that the movie paled a bit in comparison.

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